Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage

Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage

by Lee Strobel

ISBN: 9780310220145

Publisher Zondervan

Published in Health, Fitness & Dieting, Religion & Spirituality

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Book Description

Someone came between Lee and Leslie Strobel, threatening to shipwreck their marriage. No, it wasn't an old flame. It was Jesus Christ.

Leslie's decision to become a follower of Jesus brought heated opposition from her skeptical husband. They began to experience conflict over a variety of issues, from finances to child-rearing. But over time, Leslie learned how to survive a spiritual mismatch. Today they're both Christians - and they want you to know that there is hope if you're a Christian married to a nonbeliever. In their intensely personal and practical book, they reveal:

Surprising insights into the thinking of non-Christian spousesA dozen steps toward making the most of your mismatched marriageEight principles for reaching out to your partner with the gospelAdvice for raising your children in a spiritually mismatched homeHow to pray for your spouse - plus a 30-day guide to get you startedWhat to do if you're both Christians but one lags behind spirituallyAdvice for single Christians to avoid the pain of a mismatch


Sample Chapter

Entering into the Mismatch

The weather was crisp and clear on the day after Christmas 1966 when my friend Pete and I took the train from our suburban homes into downtown Chicago. We wandered around the Loop for a while, reveling in the bustle of the city, but then came time for me to bring him on a pilgrimage that I took as often as I could.

Fighting the wind, we trudged across the Michigan Avenue bridge and stopped in front of the Wrigley Building. There we stood, our hands shoved into our pockets for warmth, as we gazed across the street at the gothic majesty of Tribune Tower. I can't remember whether I muttered the word aloud or if it merely echoed in my mind: "Someday." Pete was quiet. High school freshmen are entitled to their dreams.

We lingered for a few minutes and watched as people flowed in and out of the newspaper office. Were they the reporters whose bylines I studied every morning? Or the editors who dispatched them around the world? Or the printers who manned the gargantuan presses? I let my imagination run wild-until Pete's patience wore thin.

We turned and walked up the Magnificent Mile, browsing through the overpriced and pretentious shops, until we decided to embark on the twenty-minute walk back to the train station. As we passed in front of the Civic Opera House, though, I heard a familiar voice beckon from the crowd.

"Hey, Lee, what're you doing here?" called Clay, another high school student who lived in my neighborhood.

I didn't answer right away. I was too captivated by the girl at his side, holding his hand and wearing his gold engraved ID bracelet. Her brown hair cascaded to her shoulders; her smile was at once coy and confident.

"Uh, well, um ... just hanging around," I managed to say to Clay, though my eyes were riveted on his date.

By the time he introduced us to Leslie, I wasn't thinking much about Clay or Pete or the fact that my hands were getting numb from the cold and I was standing ankle-deep in soot-encrusted snow. I made sure, however, to pay close attention when Clay pronounced Leslie's name; I knew I'd need the proper spelling to look it up in the phone book.

After all, everything's fair in love and war.


As for Leslie, I found out later that she wasn't thinking about Clay as the two of them rode the train home that afternoon. When she arrived at her house in suburban Palatine, she strolled into the kitchen and found her mother, a Scottish war bride, busily preparing dinner.

"Mom," she announced, "today I met the boy I'm going to marry!"

The response wasn't what she expected. Her mother barely looked up from the pot she was stirring. In a voice mixed with condescension and skepticism, she replied dismissively: "That's nice, dear."

But there was no doubt in Leslie's mind. Nor in mine. When I called her the next night from a pay-phone outside a gas station near my house (with four brothers and sisters, that was the only way I could get some privacy), we talked as if we had known each other for years. People like to debate whether there's such a thing as love at first sight; for us, the issue had been settled once and for all.

Leslie and I dated almost continuously throughout high school, and when I went off to study journalism at the University of Missouri, she moved there so we could be close to each other. We got married when I was twenty and she was nineteen. After I graduated we moved to Chicago, where my lifelong dream of becoming a reporter at the Chicago Tribune was realized. Leslie, meanwhile, began her career at a savings and loan association across the street from my newspaper office.

We lived a fairy-tale life. We enjoyed the exhilaration and challenge of climbing the corporate ladder while residing in an exciting, upscale neighborhood. Leslie became pregnant with our first child, a girl we named Alison, and then later gave birth to a son, Kyle. Buoyed by our deep love for each other, our marriage was strong and secure-until someone came between us, threatening to shipwreck our relationship and land us in divorce court.

It wasn't an affair. It wasn't the resurfacing of an old flame. Instead, the someone who nearly capsized our marriage was none other than God himself. At least, that's who I blamed at the time. Ironically, it was faith in Jesus Christ-which most couples credit for contributing to the strength of their marriage-that very nearly destroyed our relationship and split us apart forever.

All because of a spiritual mismatch.


I can describe God's role in our courtship and early marriage in one sentence: He just wasn't on our radar screen. In other words, he was irrelevant.

Personally, I considered myself an atheist. I had rejected the idea of God after being taught in high school that Darwin's theory of evolution explained the origin and development of life. I figured Darwin had put God out of a job! Freed of accountability, I decided to live purely for myself and my own pursuit of pleasure. As for Christians, I tended to dismiss them as naive and uncritical thinkers who needed a crutch of an imaginary deity to get them through life.

Leslie, on the other hand, would probably have considered herself an agnostic. While I tended to react with antagonism toward people of faith, she was more in spiritual neutral. She had little church influence growing up, although she has fond childhood memories of her mother gently singing traditional hymns to her while she tucked her in at night. For Leslie, God was merely an abstract idea that she had never taken the time to explore.

Without God in my life, I lacked a moral compass. My character slowly became corroded by my success-at-any-cost mental-ity. My anger would flash because of my free-floating frustration at not being able to find the fulfillment I craved. My drinking binges got out of control a little too often, and I worked much too hard at my job, in effect making my career into my god.

Despite all of that, our marriage remained stable. Our love for each other smoothed over a lot of rough edges. When we were together, we were happy. That is, until everything exploded in the fall of 1979. That's when harmony dissolved into hostility. The reason: Leslie announced that after a long period of searching and seeking, she had decided to become a follower of Jesus Christ.

To me, that was the worst possible news! I was afraid she was going to turn into a sexually repressed prude who would forsake our upwardly mobile lifestyle in favor of spending all of her free time serving the poor at some skid-row soup kitchen.

"Look, if you need that kind of crutch," I said in a snide and patronizing tone, "-if you can't stand on your own two feet and face life without putting your faith in a make-believe god and a book of mythology and legend-then go ahead. But remember two things: don't give the church any of our money, because that's all they're really interested in, and don't try to get me to get out of bed to go anywhere on Sunday mornings. I'm too smart for that [bleep]!"

Nice guy, huh?


That was the opening salvo in what turned out to be a turbulent, strife-filled, emotion-churning phase of our marriage. Our values began to clash, our attitudes started to conflict, and our priorities and desires were suddenly at odds. Arguments erupted, iciness replaced warmth, and more than once I let my frustration and anger spill over into an epithet-laced tirade of shouting and door slamming.

I can remember when everything culminated on one hot and humid day while I was mowing the lawn after another one of our quarrels. My blood was boiling.

"That's it," I muttered as I plowed through her flower bed in a childish display of passive/aggressive anger. "I don't need this anymore. This isn't what I signed up for! Maybe it's time to get out of this marriage altogether."

That was the low point. Our future hung by a thread. Maybe you can relate to that kind of emotional turmoil. Or perhaps you're frightened about your own marriage's future because your faith is driving a deeper and deeper wedge between you and your spouse. Through the years, Leslie and I have counseled many Christians who have tearfully told us how their union with a nonbeliever has increasingly brought them anguish, anger, and arguments.

Once Leslie and I got a phone call at 3:30 P.M. on Easter. Theresa was crying. "Holidays are always the worst," she said between sobs. "But today, he really went too far. He's been making fun of me, saying I'm weak, saying I believe ridiculous things, saying the church is just trying to get my money. I'm tired of defending myself. I don't know what to do anymore. Why won't he just let me believe what I want? Why does he have to ruin everything? It was bad enough having to go to Easter services by myself; why does he have to destroy the rest of my day too?"

Theresa isn't alone. Rita's husband is a lawyer who is openly antagonistic toward anything Christian. Rita said, "He actually told our son that church is where bad people are, that people will try to make you think like them if you go to church, that little boys who go to church get molested, and if Mommy ever tries to take you to church again, you tell her you won't go."

Or consider Kathy. She said her anguish over her marital situation has only been amplified by her church and Christian friends who inadvertently make matters worse for her. "There's this underlying implication that if I would just be a better witness, if I'd just pray harder, if I'd just get him to come to Christmas services, if I'd give him the right book to read or tape to listen to, that somehow everything would work out," she said. "They don't come right out and say it, but I get the feeling that I'm the one at fault-and that hurts!"

Linda Davis, who lived for years in an unequally yoked marriage until her husband became a Christian, said the only lonelier plight for an unequally yoked person would be the death of her spouse. "I doubt, however, that even physical widowhood makes a woman feel as rejected and inadequate as does 'spiritual widow-hood, '" she added. "The spiritual widow receives no flowers or sympathy cards. She simply grieves in silence for a union that never was."


More than once while Leslie and I were spiritually mismatched, I predicted our marriage would end in divorce. Men-tally, I had thrown in the towel. But through a variety of circumstances we were rescued from that fate.

Before it was too late, Leslie figured out how to live out her faith in a way that began to attract me rather than repel me. She learned how to grow and even flourish in her relationship with Christ despite discouragement from me. Although she would be the first to admit that she made mistakes from time to time, she was able to restore equilibrium to our relationship. Gently and lovingly, she started to point me toward Christ-and, ultimately, God used her to open my eyes to my need for a Savior.

Today we're celebrating twenty years as a Christian couple and thirty years of marriage. In an absolutely astounding display of God's grace, he not only forgave me for my immoral and atheistic past, but he gave me a ministry as a pastor and evangelist. Together, Leslie and I are experiencing a depth of intimacy, adventure, and fulfillment that we never could have imagined during those shallow years we spent without God.

Now, it's important to stress that-unfortunately-not every spiritual mismatch will end with both spouses joyfully serving Christ. The sobering truth is that some couples travel radically different spiritual paths for the rest of their lives. That's reality. No matter how much you want to, you cannot force your spouse to become a Christian.

Yet it's equally important to emphasize that if you find yourself in a spiritually mismatched marriage, there is hope. Don't despair! You can learn to thrive despite your differences. You can learn to encourage your spouse in his spiritual journey without inadvertently chasing him away. You can learn to earnestly seek the best for your partner without unfairly burdening yourself with undue responsibility for his salvation. In short, a spiritual mismatch does not have to be a death sentence for a marriage.

That may seem hard to believe if you're currently embroiled in conflict with your spouse over your differing views of God. But that's why Leslie and I are writing this book-to help you learn from what we did both right and wrong in this rocky period of our relationship. Believe me, we fumbled our way through, but we did walk away with some hard-earned lessons that we hope will both encourage you and give you concrete, practical, and biblical steps to take.

More importantly, you need to remind yourself on a regular basis that God has not forgotten you. He isn't gleefully punishing you because you're married to a nonbeliever. In fact, all of heaven is cheering you on as you seek to humbly and sincerely live out your faith in an often stressful and difficult environment. Your heavenly Father graciously wants to offer you courage in the face of strife, peace in the midst of turmoil, and optimism when everything seems shrouded in gloom.

With his help, you really can learn to survive a spiritual mismatch.


If you've experienced the anguish of being a Christian wed to a nonbeliever, then you can readily understand why God has prohibited his followers from marrying outside the faith. He loves us so much that he wants to spare us from the emotional anguish, the clash of values, and the ongoing conflict that can result when one spouse is a Christian but the other isn't. His goal isn't to unnecessarily limit our choice of prospective mates but to lovingly shield us from the kind of difficulties that Leslie and I faced during the nearly two years we were spiritually mismatched.

"Do not be yoked together with unbelievers," Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16. "For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God...."

Paul was not issuing a blanket prohibition against Christians having any association with nonbelievers. He was far too realistic to expect that.


Excerpted from "Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage" by Lee Strobel. Copyright © 2002 by Lee Strobel. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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